wildfire smoke across Benton County

Wildfire Smoke

Wildfires and Smoke

Like many communities in the U.S., Benton County and its surrounding areas have been experiencing more unhealthy air quality days due to wildfires.

Even if there are no local wildfires threatening our community directly, wildfire smoke is frequently transported great distances. In recent years, smoke from fires in Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, has caused elevated levels of air pollution in Benton County.

Smoke can be visible in the atmosphere but not necessarily concentrated near ground-level, where we breathe and where air pollution is measured. Therefore, there are times when visibility is affected by smoke, but the actual pollution readings are lower than might be expected.

What is in smoke and who is most at risk from breathing smoke?

Smoke is a complex mix of gases and fine particles. Microscopic particles (PM2.5) are most concerning to health. The particles are inhaled deep into the lungs, scarring and damaging delicate lung tissue. They can also enter the bloodstream.

Inhaling smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people. According to the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) people most likely to have health problems from breathing smoke are listed below. These individuals need to follow their breathing management plans, keep medications on hand and contact their health provider if necessary.

  • Persons with or recovering from COVID-19 may be at greater risk because of compromised lung and heart function.
  • People with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including bronchitis and emphysema.
  • People with respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, colds, or flu.
  • People with existing heart or circulatory problems, such as dysrhythmias, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and angina.
  • People with a prior history of heart attack or stroke.
  • Infants and children under 18 because their lungs and airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
  • Older adults (over age 65) because they are more likely to have unrecognized heart or lung diseases.
  • Pregnant women because both the mother and fetus are at increased risk of health effects.
  • People who smoke because they are more likely to already have lower lung function and lung diseases.
  • People with diabetes because they are more likely to have an undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.

What symptoms should I be concerned about?

According to the Washington State Department of Health, smoke-related health effects include:

  • Coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and runny nose.
  • If you have heart or lung disease, smoke might make your symptoms worse.
  • People who have heart disease might experience chest pain, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
  • If you have a pre-existing respiratory condition such as asthma, COPD (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), or allergies, smoke may worsen symptoms (inability to breathe normally, cough with or without mucus, chest discomfort, wheezing, and shortness of breath).
  • Seek medical attention when experiencing severe symptoms, such as chest pain or difficulty breathing. Dial 911 for emergency assistance if symptoms are serious.
  • Spokane Regional Health District provided an update on COVID-19 symptoms and wildfire smoke in June 2022, stating “As transmission of COVID-19 continues in our community, it’s important to be aware many of the symptoms are similar to those listed above. Symptoms unique to COVID-19 are listed below. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, even those that seem minor, you should test for COVID-19. Free at-home tests can be ordered by visiting the testing section at covid.srhd.org.”
    • Increase in severity of cough
    • New loss of taste or smell
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Diarrhea
    • Fever

How can I reduce exposure to smoke?

  • Check Bentoncleanair.org for the current Air Quality Index. The AQI is updated every hour. A resource for statewide wildfires and smoke updates is the Washington Smoke blog.
  • Limit or avoid time outdoors when the air quality is unhealthy. Check out this updated for 2023 Children and Youth Activities Guide for Air Quality. A helpful resource for parents, guardians, and youth program providers!
  • Keep windows and doors closed until air quality improves. When the AQI is in the good/green range, open windows for fresh air. Also, pay attention to the heat indoors. If you don’t have air conditioning and it’s hot, seek shelter at a friend’s or family member’s home, or a public space.
  • Improve the filtration in your home by using an air conditioner, set to re-circulate not fresh-air intake. Make sure to change the filter as the manufacturer recommends. It may fill faster when smoke is prolonged.
  • Create a “cleaner-air room” in your home using a HEPA filter and change the filter more often when it’s smoky. Some room air cleaners can help reduce particulate levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your home. If you don’t have a HEPA filter, make a DIY box fan filter. See resources in the next section for instructional sheets.
  • Avoid adding to indoor pollution by not smoking or using candles, incense, sprays, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Don’t broil or fry food. Don’t dust or use a vacuum unless it has a HEPA filter.
  • Check your vehicle air filters, make sure they are HEPA equivalent and change them more frequently when it is smoky.
  • Pets can be affected by wildfire smoke too.